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Monday 27 January 2020

Further Ebola death in Sierra Leone

An Ebola warning on the door of a vehicle in Monrovia, Liberia (AP)
An Ebola warning on the door of a vehicle in Monrovia, Liberia (AP)

A third top doctor has died from Ebola in Sierra Leone, a government official said, as health workers tried to determine how a fourth scientist also contracted the disease before being evacuated to Europe.

The announcements raised worries about Sierra Leone's fight against Ebola, which has killed more than 1,400 people across West Africa.

The World Health Organisation said it was sending a team to investigate how the epidemiologist now undergoing treatment in Germany may have contracted the disease that kills more than half its victims.

"The international surge of health workers is extremely important and if something happens, if health workers get infected and it scares off other international health workers from coming, we will be in dire straits," said Christy Feig, director of WHO communications in West Africa.

Dr Sahr Rogers had been working in a health clinic in the eastern town of Kenema when he contracted Ebola, said Sierra Leonean presidential adviser Ibrahim Ben Kargbo. Two other top doctors already have succumbed to Ebola since the outbreak emerged there earlier this year.

Dr Rogers' death marks yet another setback for a country still recovering from years of civil war, where there are only two doctors per 100,000 people, according to WHO. By comparison, there are 245 doctors per 100,000 in the United States.

The Senegalese epidemiologist who was evacuated to Germany had been doing surveillance work for the UN health agency, said Ms Feig, the WHO spokeswoman. The position involves coordinating the outbreak response by working with lab experts, health workers and hospitals, but does not usually involve direct treatment of patients.

"He wasn't in treatment centers normally," she said. "It's possible he went in there and wasn't properly covered, but that's why we've taken this unusual measure - to try to figure out what happened."

WHO said late on Tuesday that it was pulling out its team from the eastern Sierra Leonean city of Kailahun, where the epidemiologist working with the organisation was recently infected. The team was exhausted and the added stress of a colleague getting sick could increase the risk of mistakes, said Daniel Kertesz, the organisation's representative in the country.

Canada also announced late on Tuesday it was evacuating a three-member mobile laboratory team from Sierra Leone after people in their hotel were diagnosed with Ebola. The Public Agency of Canada said none of the team members was showing any signs of illness but that they would remain in voluntary isolation during the 21-day incubation period.

Health workers have been especially vulnerable because of their close proximity to patients, who can spread the virus through bodily fluids. WHO says more than 120 health workers have died in the four affected countries - Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Nigeria.

While some local health workers have lacked proper protective gear, the teams from the World Health Organisation and Doctors Without Borders are well-equipped and trained in how to use the protective suiting.

A team of two experts was sent on Tuesday to investigate whether the case occurred through straightforward exposure to Ebola patients, or something else, said Ms Feig, the WHO spokeswoman. She said the team is checking to see if there is an infection risk in the living and working environments that had not been discovered.

There is no proven treatment for Ebola, so health workers primarily focus on isolating the sick. But a small number of patients in this outbreak have received an experimental drug called ZMapp. The London hospital treating a British nurse infected in Sierra Leone, William Pooley, said he is now receiving the drug.

It was unclear where the doses for Mr Pooley came from. The California-based maker of ZMapp has said its supplies are exhausted.

Two Americans, a Spaniard and three health workers in Liberia have received ZMapp. It is unclear if the drug is effective. The Americans have been released from the hospital, but the Spaniard died, as did a Liberian doctor.

Meanwhile, France's government has asked Air France to suspend flights to the largest city in Sierra Leone in response to the Ebola epidemic.

The government said that the epidemic's growth - notably in Liberia and Sierra Leone - prompted its request. It also recommended that French citizens leave the area.

Air France had no immediate comment on the request.

Most regional and major airlines have suspended services to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

The UN has warned that the lack of flights is making it increasingly difficult to bring in supplies. Even UN flights to bring humanitarian workers to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have faced restrictions.

PA Media

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